7.7 Teachers’ Unions
Teachers’ unions have tremendous influence in America’s public schools, perhaps nowhere more so than in California. This section provides information about the major functions of these unions, and summarizes varying points of view about their role in student learning.
There are two main national teachers unions in the USA: the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Most California K-12 teachers are organized by the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is NEA-affiliated. California’s largest districts are dual-affiliated with both CTA and CFT, the state branch of the AFT. This may seem like detail, but I bring it up at the beginning to make a key point: there is more than one teacher union. Although teacher unions work hard to align their point of view (which maximizes their power) they are, in fact, complicated organizations containing many divergent interests.
Teacher contracts in California districts are negotiated between the school board (represented at the bargaining table by local district leaders) and the teachers (represented by local union leaders). The negotiation process is called collective bargaining.
In California, virtually every school district (Clovis is the largest exception) uses collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is not used in all US states, and in 2011 collective bargaining was the trigger issue for major demonstrations across the US. Teacher contracts can be complex agreements that address not only pay, but also a broad range of issues related to working conditions.
Both sides rely on state organizations for technical support. The state organization of the CTA provides negotiating support to its local affiliates, while school districts seek advice from consultancies such as School Services, Inc. The National Council on Teacher Quality has posted copies of collective bargaining agreements for America’s 100 largest districts, and provides an orderly database to research the major provisions of these agreements.
Negotiating support is one of many services that the CTA state organization provides to its affiliates. Another notable service is the state union’s role in state education policy.
The CTA is the strongest player in California’s “Education Coalition,” a group of education-related advocacy organizations. This coalition lobbies for education spending in the annual zero-sum budget battle with other budget priorities from prisons to health care to transportation. This is important work, particularly in California, which spends proportionally less of its tax dollars on education than most states do. (See the chapter on “Support” in this Guide.)
There is great sound and fury in education reform discussions about whether unions are “good” or “bad” for public education. Most old hands in the education arena (though not all) view this as a false dichotomy.
“Unions are Good”
There is no question that states with strong unions, such as California, pay teachers more than those with weaker unions. Teachers in strong-union states have also delayed decreases in health care benefits, though the pressures are becoming enormous as costs rise.
Supporters of teachers unions also argue that these unions head off a great deal of potential mischief. As the state has taken on more of the responsibility for funding schools in California, for example, state government has increasingly set rules for how local schools and districts should operate. CTA lobbyists generally oppose bills that would add to these rules, further limiting the dwindling scope of authority that districts and unions share through local collective bargaining.
“Unions are Bad”
Among critics of unionism in education, perhaps the most vocal figure is Terry Moe, who argues that unions’ interests are poorly aligned with those of students and taxpayers. In California, the most potent voice is probably that of Mike Antonucci.
At the local level, critics such as Moe argue that the union’s power to call a strike is unmatched by any equivalent power from the district side, which cannot lawfully dismiss the striking teachers and hire replacements. Critics also note that unions make unapologetic use of the democratic process to influence the other side of the bargaining table by using their resources to support or oppose candidates for school boards. (This is sometimes called “capturing” the school board.)
At the state level, critics object to teacher unions’ capacity to raise funds for political action. A typical full-time teacher in a CTA-affiliated district pays close to $1,000 in union dues annually. Of this amount, about 15% goes to the NEA, about 20% goes to the local affiliate, and the remainder goes to the CTA state organization. An important (but undisclosed) fraction of these resources support the unions’ political efforts. Districts may not use funds for political action.
“Unions Are. Period.”
Most education reformers view the “good union/bad union” conversation as a waste of breath. The unions aren’t going anywhere, they have tremendous power, and anyway there isn’t persuasive evidence that absence of a union is any more of a magic answer than any other one-shot education reform wish.
It is worth noting that the leadership of teachers unions is usually stable over time. School board members have limited terms. Administrators may change districts. Teachers, by contrast, work in a system that directly rewards seniority within a district and discourages moving. Teachers involved in union leadership generally stay involved for many years.
The long experience and steady perspective of union leadership creates an opportunity for teacher unions to play a strong role in education change, if a consensus for change can emerge. The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) is an informal national organization of union leaders that meets regularly to discuss ideas for change.
Change is not a simple matter for a huge organization. CTA has more than 300,000 members and grapples with the operational challenges of any large organization. Its governing body is the 800-member State Council, a regionally elected body that meets quarterly. In most cases, the voters in these elections are current CTA members currently working as teachers. In some districts, controversially, retired teachers also may cast ballots. (This is controversial partly because retired teachers and current teachers may have different interests on issues like budgets and pensions.)
There are only a few conference halls large enough to host a CTA state council meeting. Like Congress (for perspective, a policymaking body about half its size), the State Council uses a highly structured deliberative process that includes standing committees, speechmaking, and internal politics. Decisions are brought to the full 800 delegates for a vote. CTA staff and executive leadership are guided in their actions by a massive policy manual that the organization takes quite seriously and does not publish to the web (though it is available from eiaonline.com) Changes to CTA policy must go through the State Council, a process that takes time. Many points of view exist within the organization, but it can take quite a while for ideas to bubble to the surface in the form of policy changes.
The next post, “Blow It Up,” explores radical ideas to change the education system.